Heath Miller’s knee went pop during the Steeler’s final game of the 2012 regular season.
No, it did more than that. Miller tore his ACL, PCL, and MCL, and while his progress as of about a month ago when he first started to walk was moderately encouraging, it’s still highly likely that he misses a significant chunk of football this fall. The Physically Unable to Perform list (cruelly acronymed to PUP) remains a likely destination, meaning he’ll miss the first six weeks of the season.
Now, before we continue much further here let’s remind ourselves that no two muscle rips are the same, and no two humans are built with the same resistance to crushing and career altering injuries. We’re dealing with a hypothetical here.
But the question that’s the subject of our pondering is this: with Miller possibly gone for a sizable portion of the season and Mike Wallace long departed for Miami, is there a sweet rookie fantasy value mining opportunity on the Steelers’ depth chart?
Consider for a moment how many targets from Ben Roethlisberger need to be replaced. Last year, Wallace was targeted 119 times, and the easy assumption to solve that problem lies in Emmanuel Sanders’ ascension up the depth chart, along with a higher volume of work for Antonio Brown. Bingo bango.
But the opportunity for value is in Miller’s likely absence. He had a breakout season during Todd Haley’s first year as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, recording a career high 816 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 targets. The last number shows how important a sure-handed presence up the middle is to Haley, as a year ago Miller was targeted only 74 times.
Enter rookie wideout Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton isn’t Miller. He’s a wide receiver, not a tight end. And he’s 5’11″ and 189 pounds, not 6’5″ and 256 pounds. At his own position, Miller will be replaced by some combination of Matt Spaeth and David Paulson if he misses time. But his touches? They could at least partially belong to Wheaton.
The Steelers used their third-round pick (79th overall) on the Oregon State standout who’s now the Beavers’ all-time leader in receptions (he finished his final collegiate season with 1,244 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns). Of his 91 catches in 2012, 18 of them went for 20 yards or more, showing that while he certainly has vertical burst, he can excel while running short-to-intermediate routes, and being a possession option. You know, sort of like Miller, our fallen tight end.
What’s even more intriguing is Wheaton’s versatility. He lined up in the backfield often last year, and often enough that he was even given 20 carries, which he turned into 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Even better: he was used as a slot receiver frequently, a position Haley will likely utilize more often if Miller is sidelined.
Haley is aware of Wheaton’s ability in traffic, saying that his wide frame resembles the physical makeup of a running back. Long term, he’s also surely aware of Wheaton’s ability to fill the Wallace role in his offense, just with lesser speed. But when that wide base is combined with Wheaton’s short area burst, rather pleasant outcomes will come from his slot role. Isn’t that right, Alen Dumonjic?
With Wheaton running routes from the slot, he’ll be able to threaten defenses vertically through the middle of the field. If he runs routes through the seam against split-field safeties, he’ll force one of them to pinch inside and cover him, consequently leaving room down the sideline for another receiver. Against one safety, Wheaton will have the ability to run at him and pin them back on their heels, potentially creating one-on-one matchups outside and once again creating room for other receivers to make big catches.
If the offense as a whole benefits quickly from Wheaton being on the field more often in three wide receiver sets with Miller out, then his role could and should increase even upon Miller’s return.
And if he busts out quickly in September for some fine flex games with 60 or so yards, then you remember these words here. If not, then we’ll forget that we had this little talk. Kay?